John Crisp - An education on teachers' issues

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The political right assumes that the mainstream media is habitually, reactively liberal, but it's worth noting that the putatively left-wing New York Times largely took management's part during the public school teachers' strike in Chicago last week.

A Sept. 11 editorial was tellingly titled "Chicago Teachers' Folly." The following day, Times columnist Nicholas Kristof argued -- quite convincingly -- that teachers' effectiveness, or lack thereof, can be documented more or less scientifically. He takes the Chicago teachers' union to task for attempting, he says, to protect the security of weak teachers who have been laid off.

Then, on Sept. 13, Times columnist David Brooks imagined our country as made up of two economies.

Economy I is driven by companies that make products such as airplanes and steel and that are compelled by global competition to innovate and streamline. Economy II is made up of "government-dominated sectors" like education and prisons. Because these sectors don't face global competition, they don't bother to streamline and eventually they become bloated and inefficient. Brooks said the Republican remedy is to make the second economy look more like the first.

Both columnists' points are well supported, but their positions seem worrisomely oversimplified. Brooks points out, for example, that in 1960 America spent roughly $2,800 in today's dollars on every student in our public school system; now we spend about $11,000 per student, but no one claims that our educational outcomes have increased by a factor of four.

Still, I wonder if we would want to go back to the educational system that we could buy for $2,800 per student in 1960. A high-tech classroom in those days meant an overhead projector, whose bulb could be replaced by the janitor.

Modern classrooms are equipped with Internet access and expensive equipment that requires additional personnel to operate and maintain, as well as more expertise on the part of the teachers.

Some might consider classroom items like these to be frills, but would you want to send your child to a school that didn't bother to acknowledge the state of our culture's technology?

Furthermore, for $11,000 per student, we're teaching a lot more students in more equivalent circumstances. In 1960, the schools in my South Texas hometown were essentially segregated, and I doubt that the full $2,800 per student made its way over to the black side of town. Furthermore, with $11,000 we pay a lot more attention to students with special needs, who in 1960 might have been mainstreamed or just ignored.

But this may be the biggest difference: My mother began teaching in the 1940s for less than $100 per month. In 1960, public school teaching was still a highly feminized sub-profession in which compensation was often calculated as a second income, merely supplementary to the family breadwinner's main income. No one went into teaching to climb much higher than the lower reaches of the middle class.

That's moved in the right direction, largely due to the efforts of the much-maligned teachers' unions. Of course, many would still rather pay lip service to teachers than to compensate them generously for the hard work that they do, but does anyone really want to go back to when teaching was hardly recognized as a profession, at all?

Nevertheless, Kristof's and Brooks' points are well taken, and certainly teachers' unions have to be realistic and flexible as they consider the reforms required by an educational system with constantly evolving needs. And certainly weak teachers must be eliminated.

Still, while Brooks supports the persistent modern inclination to think of schools as businesses, it's important to remember that they're not. And students aren't products, and teachers aren't factory workers.

Ironically, those who are inclined to think of schools as businesses never embrace the true free-market solution touted so avidly in business, which is to hike teacher compensation until we can rely on competition to replace the bad teachers with good ones.

(John Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.)

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